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3. Do's and don't's of encouraging women in Linux

Encouraging women in Linux involves both learning what to do, and learning what to stop doing. We'll present our ideas in "do" and "don't" pairs, since having only a list of things to do or a list of things not to do is not as helpful as having both. Some of these suggestions may seem insultingly obvious to you personally, but for many other people, they aren't obvious. Each of these suggestions is based on multiple real-life encounters with people for whom these ideas weren't obvious. Try not to dismiss any of the ideas--these are real suggestions from real women, the women you presumably want to attract to Linux. Also, most of these suggestions are not gender-specific, and will help to attract all types of people to Linux.

3.1. Don't tell sexist jokes

Sexist jokes are the number one way to drive women out of any group, and they are more common than many people realize. I have more than once heard a man say that he doesn't make that kind of joke, and then hours or minutes later, hear the same person make a joke about pregnant women or PMS. Sometime he just doesn't realize that he made a sexist joke, for example, "blonde jokes" are actually "dumb women" jokes. Sometimes he tells me that it's okay to make a sexist joke if it's true, or it's funny (funny to whom?). What some people fail to realize is that jokes about gender of any sort almost always make fun of women, and will make most women angry, regardless of the context. It doesn't help to first make a sexist joke about men and then one about women.

You can argue that women shouldn't be so sensitive (and I will disagree with you) but even then, regardless of should or should not, your comments and jokes are driving women away. If that's not what you want, then don't make sexist jokes. If you're not sure if your joke is sexist, find something else to say.

3.2. Do protest sexist jokes

The next time you see someone joking about women on your local mailing list or in person, complain about it. It's difficult to do this without making yourself a target for ridicule, but it's even more difficult for a woman to do the same thing. Women keep silent when we see sexist jokes because if we protest, we will immediately be attacked for being over-sensitive, uptight, or a "feminazi." (Note: NEVER use the term "feminazi." It discredits all feminists, and trivializes the victims of the Nazi Holocaust. Consider how ridiculous it sounds to call people like Rush Limbaugh "male chauvinazis" and you may understand why "feminazi" is so emotionally loaded.)

The best way to fight back against sexist jokes is with humor. If someone replies to a post about the technical achievements of a woman with "Is she single?" reply with, "Gee, Jeff, no wonder YOU'RE still single." Every time a woman sees a sexist joke or comment, she feels angry, left out, and belittled. Every time a woman sees a man stand up against this behavior, she feels included and valued.

3.3. Don't call people bitches

Using the word "bitch" (and several other words) is derogatory to women, no matter whom the word is referring to. I wouldn't have bothered to include this except that it's apparently not as obvious as I thought, as I have recently heard Linux developers use "bitch" in a serious manner with apparent nonchalance.

3.4. Do show some respect

Talk respectfully about all women, not just the women you're attracted to, as well as all other kinds of humans of all ages and appearances. If you don't do this, women will tend to assume that you will treat them as badly as the people you're insulting and avoid you.

3.5. Don't take the keyboard away

This is a general problem when teaching anyone something new, but it happens more often to women. Someone asks a question, and instead of telling that person the answer, you take away the keyboard and type in the command yourself. Don't do this! It makes it much more difficult to learn and it makes the other person feel stupid and helpless. In general, give people a chance to learn how to do things themselves if they're interested in learning. You may think you're doing a friend a favor by fixing her Apache configuration while she's gone, but if she's trying to learn how to configure Apache, then you're not actually helping her.

3.6. Do give directions and explain them clearly

While it is much harder for you to take the time and patience to explain what to do and why, and then spell out the command to type, it's worth it in the long run because the other person is learning and you're less likely to ever have to answer that question again. Specifically, women will feel more confident in their own abilities if you allow them to type the command themselves.

3.7. Don't make sexual advances towards women

Imagine a bar or a pub full of sports fans, fans of a game which you don't know much about or like. Imagine that they're all taller and stronger than you, speak in a language you only halfway understand, and belittle anyone who isn't totally focused on their sport. Now imagine that you walk into this bar, wearing a shirt that says, "I AM NOT A FAN OF ANY SPORT." Just imagine it for a minute. How would you feel? Nervous? Afraid? Different? Out of place?

You begin to have a teeny-tiny idea of what it's like to be the only woman in a large group of men.

Keep that feeling of nervousness in mind when you read the rest of this paragraph. When you immediately make a sexual advance to a woman at a LUG or online, you're making her feel like she's not part of the community, like she's under attack, and like she is risking being ostracized if she turns you down or offends you. Remember, this isn't a friendly one-on-one situation where she feels comfortable turning you down, she's surrounded by the equivalent of the aforementioned huge sports fans. She's trying to fit in and be part of the group, and by hitting on her, you're cutting her out of the herd and isolating her from the group. Women grow up with the constant fear and awareness of being attacked by men, and as silly as it may seem, it colors all her interactions, no matter how safe or mundane they may seem to men.

Like any other human being, a woman wants to have friends and be appreciated for who she is. Every time she gets an email asking her on a date, she is reminded that she isn't viewed as part of the group, but instead as different, an object of desire, and is certainly not being judged on her technical merit alone.

This may be hard to stomach, but you need to not hit on women who show up for Linux events, at least not right away. In all likelihood, you are NOT throwing away your only chance at true love by not coming on to her immediately, but you are throwing away your chance to have a fun new member of the Linux community. And even if you still think you're missing a chance at true love, keep in mind that many women brave enough to show up at a LUG or your local mailing list will frequently make the first move anyway. By hitting on them at the first opportunity, you're scaring them away, and you're also scaring away all the other women who might have become interested if the first woman had stayed.

This goes double for women you meet over email or on IRC. You may think that your "Are you single?" line is hysterically witty and suave, but she's heard it a million times. Even if you're joking, even if you already have a girlfriend or are married--don't do it.

3.8. Do act friendly

When women aren't being hit on, we're often being completely ignored, instead. This isn't any better. Women new to a group often want the same things men want - we want to feel welcomed, we want to talk about subjects of mutual interest, we want to make friends. When a woman says something, listen and respond in a friendly manner. Start a conversation and find a topic you're both interested in talking about. Don't assume that because she's a woman, she has stereotypically female interests or opinions, instead, keep an open mind and listen for clues about what she is interested in. Most likely, she has interests beyond hair, makeup, and movie stars if she's involved in Linux.

Several women have complained that all men seem to be able to talk about with them is why women stay away from computers. While it's an important issue, women would like to talk about something else most of the time, and we would especially not like to be reminded of how "weird" we are when we first join a group. Wait until she's settled in and feels comfortable before bringing up the subject if you're curious about it.

3.9. Don't complain about the lack of women in computing

It's useful and constructive to talk about the lack of women in computing when you are approaching it from the viewpoint of the women who are being left out of an exciting and rewarding field. It's sad and pathetic to talk about the lack of women in computing from the viewpoint of a man who blames his lackluster love life on the lack of women in computing. The best way to annoy and drive away women is to talk about the lack of women in computers in this way. Here are some of the more common reactions of a woman listening to a man whine about the lack of women in his field:

As you can see, not only does whining about the lack of women make you annoying to women, it also makes the women who are here more likely to leave. In no case does it result in a woman being more likely to date you.

3.10. Do encourage women in computing

Instead of complaining about the lack of women, start doing something about it. Take women's complaints seriously (starting with this HOWTO), read the studies on why women avoid computers, math, and science in general, and find ways that you can help encourage women. Be encouraging and supportive when other people discuss the reasons why women are being driven out of computing. If you have the opportunity, try to mentor women. Mentoring means guiding, encouraging, and counseling someone in their education and career. Not everyone is capable of mentoring, and it's difficult to find compatible mentors and mentees, but when it does work out, the results can be spectacular. Don't, however, think of mentoring as a way to find a girlfriend - all a mentor gets out of the relationship is reflected glory from your student and the joy of watching another person grow.

3.11. Don't stare and point when women arrive

Nobody likes being stared or pointed at. Why would a woman like it either? Many women complain that when they walk into a room of Linux enthusiasts, suddenly, the conversation stops, everyone turns around and looks, and few people even point to make sure their buddies can see what everyone is staring at. This is intimidating and unpleasant, and more than enough to make a woman swear never to return.

A good quote from Mia, a women in Linux:

"I've never bothered going to a LUG but I've been to other geek events where everyone has turned around and stared when I walked in... it felt more like the 'stranger walks into a bar scene' in a western than anything else."

3.12. Do treat new arrivals politely

When a woman walks into a LUG meeting or posts on a mailing list, act nonchalant. Try as much as possible to treat her like any other person you would like to have as part of your group. Remember, it's not flattering to remind her that she's one of a kind, special, rare, or weird. Start pretending that women are a normal part of the Linux community and you'll go a long way towards making that a reality.

3.13. Don't treat women stereotypically

Don't assume that all women like cooking, sewing, and babies, and are at the LUG or on the mailing list only because their boyfriend, son, or husband are interested in Linux. One woman says that every time someone in her LUG explained something to her, they would use an analogy to cooking or babies, assuming that those were the subjects she was most familiar with. Don't assume we aren't interested in cars, math, fighter jets, or robotics. Don't assume that we don't know how to compile a kernel--I personally know at least fifteen women who can compile their own kernels and several of those also write kernel code. If you're lucky, one of them will show up to your LUG or mailing list, and you wouldn't want to insult her by assuming she couldn't even install her own machine. Don't assume that she got interested in computers because she liked to chat or send instant messages. Women are about as likely to cuss as men--don't do a double-take if you cuss in front of a woman. If she's read any of the kernel code (notably arch/sparc/), she's heard of the word "fuck" before.

3.14. Do treat women as normal people

As much as you can, act like the women in your group are just normal people, because we are just normal people. Some people complain, "Women want to be treated just like normal people, but then they tell me not to make sexist jokes around them! That's a paradox!" Well, if you define "normal people" as "the men I usually hang out with," then it is a paradox. If you include women in your definition of "normal people," and then treat normal people in a fair and respectful way, then women don't require any special treatment.

If you're still unsure of how to treat women, try the following: Be friendly but not overbearing, be casual, start conversations the way you normally do, move on when the conversation is over. If you spend most of your time around a very specific subset of the male population, you will have to change your behavior to some degree, but this is just as true as if you were talking to a man from a totally different background. If you find that you have to heavily modify your behavior in order to not offend women, you should consider changing your behavior in all circumstances. No one is fooled if you simply stop making sexist jokes when women are around but continue to make them when (you think) women aren't around.

3.15. Don't criticize too much

Women are socialized to be far more sensitive to criticism than men, as well as more critical of themselves. As a result, women are far more likely to be driven off by heavy or unfair criticism than men. When you're tempted to criticize, try to remember that absolutely no one was born knowing how to compile a kernel and that at one point, you didn't know anything about Linux, either. People will lose interest in something if they perceive themselves as being bad at it, so if you want someone to continue being interested in Linux, don't criticize her so much that she believes she isn't any good at it.

3.16. Do compliment

Women have much lower self-confidence than men on average, and will generally judge themselves far more harshly than any outsider. Compliments help improve her self-confidence, which in turn keeps her interested in the subject. If she believes that she's not good at Linux, she'll probably stop working on Linux.

The following are some guidelines for complimenting anyone:

You almost certainly shouldn't compliment her on her hair, her face, her body, or her sweet temperament. If she's interested in Linux, she is, by definition, a geek, and probably wants to be complimented on her intelligence, abilities, and hard work. Compliment her on installing Linux for the first time, on her customized desktop, on her intelligent and interesting questions during the last meeting. A compliment on anything else is inappropriate and will be seen as a sexual advance (because it almost always is), and will make her feel more uncomfortable and less confident.

3.17. Don't invite only male speakers

If all your speakers are always men, women will notice and not feel welcome. Role models people can identify with are important to staying interested in a field.

3.18. Do ask women to speak

It's surprisingly easy to find technically brilliant female computer scientists willing to come speak to your group. If you explain that you are trying to encourage women in computers, many women will be even more likely to speak at your event. Women speakers are probably the number one way to get women to come to your event. They will be able to see a role model, ask her questions about her experiences, and for a few hours at least, not feel like the only woman who's interested in computers. Be sure that when you do invite a woman speaker that you advertise the event well, especially to women.

One woman says that she noticed her LUG paid less attention to and was ruder to women speakers. She thought it might be because the members dismissed the possibility of her knowing anything they didn't already know. Be sure not to let this happen to your women speakers.

3.19. Don't micro-specialize

Maybe you and your friends are perfectly happy to show up to your local LUG and talk about the same topics (the latest video card, first-person shooters, robots) every week, but for whatever reason, few women have the endless interest in minutiae that men often display. Try not to have all your speakers talk about micro-specialties, or always discuss the same areas of robotics.

3.20. Do discuss broader topics

Arrange for speakers on a wider range of issues than just technical specialties. Women tend to be more interested in political and social issues surrounding computing, and women also tend to have a broader range of technical interests within computer science. Try scheduling a discussion on compilers if you always end up talking about USB, or a review of the open source licenses instead of endlessly rehashing the discussion about binary-only Nvidia modules.

3.21. Don't make your meetings hard to attend

About the worst LUG meeting possible: 10pm on Monday night, in a warehouse in downtown, the unmarked entrance is in a deserted and poorly lit alleyway, and no public transport is nearby. Oh, and we're serving pizza (choices: meat, double meat, and extra spicy meat) and cheap beer. Did I mention we're going out to a sports bar afterward?

3.22. Do make meetings easy to attend

As usual, following these suggestions will make your meetings more attractive to everyone. Try to schedule your meetings at family and school friendly times - not too late in the evening. Make sure your meeting is in a safe, well lit place with easy access to public transportation, if your city has any. If you want new people to attend, the meeting place should be clearly marked and easy to find. If you serve food or drink, try to vary the menu a bit. After an informal survey, we discovered that women tend to prefer sandwiches, fruit, and vegetables instead of pizza. Chinese takeout is one way to easily provide a variety of different food. Consider having a vegetarian menu option. If members of the LUG socialize outside meetings, try to do things which are welcoming to people of different backgrounds.

3.23. Don't make new people feel unwelcome

If a new person shows up and all the established people refuse to talk to or acknowledge the new person, the new person is unlikely to come back. Most likely, everyone is just too shy to say hello, but that doesn't make any difference. Additionally, if other members immediately attack or challenge or just ignore everything the newcomer has to say, she won't be interested in returning.

3.24. Do help new people get involved

Ask new people to introduce themselves and talk about their own projects and interests for a bit. Try more informal meeting styles - instead of a speaker and a silent audience, have a panel question and answer session or a round table discussion. Let members speak for a few minutes on their own projects, so new people who share their interests know who to talk to. If you have someone who doesn't mind speaking to strange people, ask them to serve as host and welcome new people to the group or mailing list.

3.25. Don't underestimate girlfriends or wives

Many women involved in Linux or computing are also dating or married to men with similar interests. Many people then assume that the woman is only interested in Linux because her boyfriend or husband is. Women are sometimes introduced to Linux through a boyfriend (which shouldn't make their interest less valid or less important). More often, women become interested in Linux or computing, start making friends and meeting people in the field, and because there are so few women in the field, we unsurprisingly often have little difficulty finding a person to date in the same field. Don't conclude that because most women in Linux are dating or married to someone also involved in Linux, that women are only interested in Linux because of that relationship. For many women, interest in Linux predates her current relationship. I personally became interested in Linux while I was dating an English major who wouldn't know an operating system if it walked up and bit him.

One of the LinuxChix reports that her first invitation to speak at a conference was as a member of a panel entitled "Wives of Hackers." The prominent open source celebrity who suggested the panel didn't understand why she was insulted. After all, her own work in open source was apparently insignificant compared to being the wife of a famous kernel hacker.

3.26. Do treat girlfriends and wives as independent people

Girlfriends or wives of people interested in Linux also have their own lives and accomplishments, and frequently those are also in the area of Linux or open source or computing. Instead of treating her as an adjunct to her boyfriend or husband, recognize that she has her own interests and areas of expertise, and talk to her about them.




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